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What is phonics and why is it important?

With so many parents now having to provide phonics lessons for their children at home, we thought a very swift look into what phonics is and why it’s important would come in handy. We’ll also include some resources that we rate – free where possible!

What is phonics?

Phonics is a way of learning to read that focuses on the parts of the word which make up the whole, rather than looking at the entire word as one might when learning with flashcards.

For children, they will be taught to break words into their component sounds (segment) in order to write them, and to blend the component sounds together in order to read. It can be helpful to think of the parts of the word being like building blocks – building them up helps us to read, taking them apart helps us to write.

Technical terms

The incredible number of technical terms that go along with phonics can be intimidating at first, but once you get to know the words, they are easily understood – as evidenced by the fact our small people are able to use them with ease!

Here is a cheat sheet:

Phoneme – the sounds in a word. So, for instance, the phonemes in the word cat are /k/ /a/ /t/. In the word cake there are also three phonemes: /k/ /ay/ /k/.

Grapheme – the written representation of a sound. One sound can have many different written representations. So, for example, the sound /ay/ can be written as ‘a’ (ape), ‘ay (tray)’, ‘ai’ (train), ‘a_e’ (you might know that one as the magic ‘e’), ‘ey’ (grey), and ‘ei’ (reindeer).

Digraph – A digraph is two letters that make one sound. Examples of digraphs are ay, ee, ie, oa, oo.

Trigraph – a trigraph is three letters that make one sound. An example of a trigraph is igh.

Tricky Words – Tricky words are words which can’t be sounded out – they must be learned as entire words. ‘Are’ is a tricky word, because it doesn’t conform to phonemic rules. It just has to be learned!

Phase 1,2, etc – Some time ago, the government released a document called Letters and Sounds, which laid out for teachers the order in which phonics was to be taught. The document broke teaching down into different phases which are broadly used to this day, whether the teacher is using Letters and Sounds or not. Phase 1 is from birth and usually lasts for as long as a child is learning to read! Even as children progress through the other phases, they will be expected to do phase 1 learning too – it is all to do with sounds and listening. It focuses on rhyme, rhythm, syllabic awareness and environmental sounds. Phase 2 usually begins in nursery and involves learning each letter in the alphabet as a sound as well as a name. So, for example, A has a name /ay/ and the sound /a/. B has the name /bee/ and the sound /b/.

During phase 3 children begin to learn digraphs and some trigraphs, until they have a sound for each phoneme in the English language (there are about 42!) Phase 4 is a consolidation phase where children learn no new sounds but start to read them in longer words. In phase 5 children learn multiple digraphs for each phoneme, and in phase 6 they start to learn spelling rules – things like adding prefixes and suffixes.

What’s the best way to learn phonics?

Little and often is the prescribed way of learning. In school, most children in early years and up to around age 7 will have a daily phonics session of around 20 minutes to half an hour. While homeschooling, formal sessions are great – especially if a teacher is giving you access online, but if you are unable to provide them, then simply reading with a child is a great way to promote phonics.

With younger children, you can point out letters, and smaller sight words such as ‘a’, ‘I’ and ‘the’ and make a game of spotting them as you read. Children who know some letter-sound correspondences can have a try and sounding out the words if they want to. Older children might want to take on a whole page! Honestly though – just reading with your child, whatever age, will give them a great deal of learning without ever even mentioning a phoneme!

Where can I find some resources?

Twinkl has amazing resources, even in the (admittedly small) free section. During the last lockdown they did loads of sessions online, and they can all still be found on their YouTube Channel. Their sessions are good quality, and the next best thing if you don’t have access to / can’t afford a live online session.

Phonics Play is free again during the present lockdown. Their games are engaging – and the best recommendation – most teachers use their games as part of their own lessons!

Phonics Bloom has some lovely free games. Many more are behind a paywall, but £15 for the year is a pretty reasonable price to pay as long as you feel it’s get used.

ICT Games is another teacher favourite. It has plenty of games – and not just phonics! Best of all, it’s entirely free, and it has an app, so you can pop it onto your small persona’s tablet – much more accessible!

If you would like some 1:1 or small group support with phonics for your child, get in touch! We have extra sessions in place during this difficult time and are ready to help if you need it! Get in touch with Karen at
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